Issue of Missing Vietnam Vets Called Manipulative Myth

By , Brad Knickerbocker, a Monitor staff writer, was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam.

M.I.A. OR MYTHMAKING IN AMERICA. By H. Bruce Franklin, Lawrence Hill Books, 240 pp. $17.95

THIS election campaign is proving once again that the Vietnam War - how one conducted oneself at the time, and how one's world view was shaped by that period - still is a very deep and emotional issue in the United States. And of all the complex psychological and cultural aspects of the war that remain nearly two decades after Americans stopped fighting in Southeast Asia, none has persisted longer than the question of whether United States servicemen still are being held as prisoners.

If anything, the POW (prisoner of war) controversy has become even more intense in recent years, despite the lack of any substantial evidence that Americans remain there against their will. In trying to sort out the facts and assertions, Rutgers University scholar H. Bruce Franklin concludes that myth has overshadowed reality, and that Americans over the years have been doubly manipulated: First, by US government officials trying to prop up support for an increasingly unpopular war by diverting attentio n from a corrupt ally not worth fighting for (the South Vietnamese government), and by directing that attention to getting back brave and mistreated American men being held hostage. Second, by the popular media - particularly Hollywood - which have cynically and deceptively reinforced an erroneous belief of many surviving captives through dozens of violent - and usually racist - Rambo-type films.

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In "M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America," Franklin methodically builds his case on the record concerning the numbers of POWs and MIAs (missing in action). That record shows, for example, that "Vietnam and the Pathet Lao actually released or accounted for 15 more prisoners than the Defense and State Departments had listed as likely prisoners, even though both agencies had attempted to inflate their figures."

The record also shows that government officials included as "missing" more than 1,000 who were known to have been killed but whose bodies were not recovered (81 percent of them air crews whose planes blew up or crashed at sea or in thick jungles). The results of a special congressional investigation (headed by a hawkish representative) and another by a US Navy combat pilot at the National War College showed "not a shred of verifiable evidence of a single living prisoner."

And yet the myth persists. Franklin details the troubling cultural and psychological reasons as played out in popular war novels and movies in which good guys get to reverse history and win - not only against Asian bad guys (the obvious parallel is with an earlier generation of cowboy and Indian movies) but against "the bureaucrats and politicians who conspire to emasculate America's virility and betray the American dream."

Franklin obviously has strong feelings about the war and its aftermath. Some may conclude that his own biases have gotten in the way of his scholarship. But having followed this issue closely for years, I have to conclude that Franklin is essentially correct.

Beyond the lack of convincing evidence (or even credible circumstantial evidence), there is simply no reason why Vietnam would be holding Americans; and if there were, no motivation would exist for four US presidents to do anything but try to get those Americans back - unless one believes in a conspiracy, and there is no proof of that.

There is a dual tragedy to this myth: the prolonged agony Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians have suffered because US policymakers were unwilling to confront and dispel the myth, and the prolonged agony the families of hundreds of US servicemen have suffered for the same reason.

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